History of the Department

In 1973, the Department of Ethology was established as the predecessor of the Laboratory of Behavioural Genetics, and was located at the Biological Station in Göd. We investigated the genetic background of the elementary behavioural patterns of the tomato fish (Macropodus opercularis), a species of Vietnamese origin that is easy to keep in aquaria.
For such studies, inbred and genetically homogeneous strains are required, but these take about 20 years to produce using conventional methods. Thus, we have developed a method of breeding tomato fish over several generations by gynogenesis, which achieves sufficient homogeneity after only 4-5 generations.

Recombinant inbred strains have been produced by gynogenesis (for the first time in the world after mice, from another vertebrate animal). The study of recombinant tomato fish strains showed that natural behavioural units are determined by a small number of genes, whereas artificial behavioural parameters previously used in animal psychology experiments are polygenic.

The Laboratory of Behavioural Genetics was operating under very difficult financial conditions, so with the encouragement of István Tölg, Director of the Százhalombatta Temperate Fish Farm, we started carp breeding research with significant financial support. We developed a method of mass gynogenesis of carp, and the hybrid strains obtained by cross-breeding were transferred to the Fish Breeding Research Institute in Szarvas, and achieved 30-60% higher body weight growth than the conventional carp strains used until then.

In the 1980s, research focused on studying the antipredatory behaviour of tomato fish, combining ethological observations and classical experimental psychological methods. Tomato fish were confronted with their natural predators and predator mock-ups, and the importance of key cues, the role of learning and the evolution of avoidance behaviour were investigated.

We found that the most important key cues in the learning processes of tomato fish in relation to predators are the two horizontally positioned conspicuous eye patches, body mass and movement. If the key cues are accompanied by unpleasant effects, the tomato fish learns to avoid the cue carrier, whether it is a live fish or a model, based on a single event. The role of learning cues has also been demonstrated in mice, so the phenomenon can be considered to be common in animal behaviour.

In 1990, under the leadership of Professor Vilmos Csányi, the Laboratory of Plant Genetics became the Department of Ethology of the Institute of Biology of the Faculty of Natural Sciences of Eötvös Loránd University. Behavioural ecology, human ethology and comparative and cognitive ethology have emerged as new research directions.

In 2000, the Department of Ethology moved to the campus in Lágymányos, where it was headed by Vilmos Altbäcker, who expanded the research in behavioural ecology.

We investigated the relationship between reproduction and survival in the warthog (Spermophilus citellus), a highly protected species in Hungary. We found that the better overwintering individuals wake up earlier and more sexually active the following spring. Males have greater reproductive success because they can protect a larger area with more females. The evolution and function of cooperative behaviour has been particularly well studied by comparing the social behaviour of the house mouse (M. musculus musculus) and the field mouse (M. spicilegus) of the genus Mus. One of the peculiarities of the newts is that the young mice stay together during the winter and build a mound of soil and plant parts, which they leave only in spring.

Vilmos Altbäcker's research group has also analysed the specificities of herbivore-herbivore relationships in patchy environments in Bugacon and laboratory studies since 1989. The main focus of the research is the complex relationship between the burrowing rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and juniper (Juniperus spp.). The results confirmed the central role of burrowing rabbits in the ecosystem, the dependence of many plants on them, and the predominant feeding of a range of predators, making them a keystone species in Bugacon. The ecological role of the rabbit population was confirmed by the collapse of their population in 1994, which has since resulted in a reorganisation of both the vegetation and the animal community. In a long-term field study of herbivore-herbivore relationships, a thorough analysis of the sub-processes of grazing is the task of the ethologist. Monitoring grazing was previously impossible due to the shyness of the rabbit, but the team has developed a method to fully control the rabbit.

In 2006, Ádám Miklósi took over the leadership of the Department. In addition to continuing research in behavioural ecology, comparative ethology, and a completely new direction in ethorobotics emerged as prominent areas of focus.

The research directions of the Family Dog Programme were expanded. We were among the first to conduct personality research in dogs, and the behavioral descriptive methods used here also allowed us to uncover the genetic factors influencing individual personality traits. Elements of the dopamine system (e.g. DRD4 receptor) are likely to influence activity and impulsivity in dogs. Further research has shown additional functional similarities in canine-human social behaviors, demonstrating that dogs have a tendency to imitate and are sensitive to certain human communicative cues in a similar way to infants.

We have also sought to apply our experience in ethological research to the development of robots capable of interacting with humans. We are investigating what characteristics a social robot needs to possess in order to successfully integrate into a human community. The approach is similar to the one we used for dogs, considering the human-dog relationship as a model for the development of robots.

Photo: the birthday celebration of Professor Vilmos Csányi at the Göd Biological Station in 2010. From left to right: back row: Ádám Miklósi, Péter Kabai, Péter Pongrácz, Enikő Kubinyi, Pál Hanke; middle row: Katalin Maros, Andrea Szebenyi, Márta Gácsi, Vilmos Csányi, József Topál; front row: Szima Naderi, Vilmos Altbäcker, Jeromos, Éva Nádai, Antal Dóka

In 2016 Enikő Kubinyi and in 2021 Attila Andics won a European Research Council ERC Starting Grant, another milestone in the history of the Department.

In this video, Vilmos Csányi and Ádám Miklósi discuss the history of the Department of Ethology:

Our Series on the Department and Our Research (2022):